James Crowden

How the English invented champagne

It all started with Hereford cider

  • From Spectator Life
Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim (Getty Images)

Is champagne a wine region or a state of mind? The small bubbles have a way of getting into the bloodstream and the imagination, creating a slightly euphoric sensation which encourages pleasant chatter. But who put the sparkling genie in the bottle? Who pioneered the intricate process of secondary fermentation in a bottle strong enough to withstand six atmospheres of pressure and contains all those wonderful bubbles of CO2, about 20 million per bottle? 

In France, it is claimed that it was Dom Perignon (1638-1715), ‘Come quickly. I am tasting the stars,’ he is supposed to have said. Very romantic, a convenient sales pitch. The only problem is that the story is cobblers. Even eminent French wine historians now agree that there is no written evidence for it. 

Royalist youth wanted to put a bit of sparkle back into life under Puritan rule

Events in Hereford, Oxford, Somerset and London suggest a very different origin story. In the 1620s, strong dark green bottle glass, known as Verre Anglais, was invented by Huguenot glassmakers who had fled France. The onion shaped bottles had necks with a string lip for tying down the cork and a punt or kick in the bottom to make them stronger. In a legal judgment of 1662 given by the attorney general, four Huguenot glass makers made a sworn affidavit that Sir Kenelm Digby had invented this type of bottle while they were in his employ ‘neere thirty years earlier’.  

One cidermaker well-known to Sir Kenelm was a Hereford man, Lord Scudamore. In his 1631 to 1632 household accounts, he bought six dozen bottles from glass merchants in London and Gloucester and six dozen corks. He even has a ‘new lock for ye Sydar house door’ where he carried out his experiments in fermentation. After four years as Charles I’s ambassador in Paris, Scudamore returned and in 1639 he took six bottles of cider up to London.

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Written by
James Crowden

James Crowden is a poet from Somerset and a former shepherd, cider maker and forester. He is the author of Cider Country: How an Ancient Craft Became a Way of Life.

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